Music is an integral part of the storytelling and emotive process in film. From rising scores and familiar themes to the right choice of a popular artists’ track, music provides a subtle undercoat that aides the story and the performances played out on screen. Music works because even as a standalone art form it gives you goosebumps that make your whole body shiver; it gives you nipples that could cut glass. The right note or a relatable lyric instantly resonates that feeling inside you: that unrequited love, that love you lost, that love that you’re struggling to maintain. Some artists strike the balance between music & lyrics so perfectly you wonder what massive flaws they must have that compensates for this sheer talent they display. Sadly, much to the envy of many a struggling artist, they don’t. Simply put, they are geniuses. Bruce Springsteen is one of those.
Bruce Springsteen tells a better story in five minutes than most screenwriters can manage in ninety. Over sixteen albums and hundreds of songs he demonstrates an innate ability to connect with the themes of everyday life: love, loss, betrayal, work, home, family, hope, passion, despair, retribution. The ballad of the blue collar man. For those that know me they know that I have somewhat of a ‘man crush’ on Springsteen (it’s okay to call it a crush if it’s a man crush). After being exposed to his New York and Barcelona live DVD’s and being educated in the ‘greatest song in the whole wide world ever’ (Thunder Road of course) my interest piqued into overdrive as I trawled through his back catalogue, seeking to hear more of his characters’ stories and educate myself in this very unique and special kind of rock music.
I suppose if we’re going to talk about the man and his music then we’d better cover a brief bio: the ‘what’ that made him the ‘who’. Born and raised in the state of New Jersey, Springsteen is of Irish, Italian and Dutch ancestry. Raised a Catholic (an influence heavily felt in his work) he had a working class upbringing, his father working several jobs, his mother being the main income earner. He was somewhat of a loner at school and sought solace in music. First inspired by Elvis Presley at an early age, he eventually picked up a guitar aged 13 that his mother purchased for him. To us a tried and tested adage: from that day, he never looked back. Young Springsteen toured the Jersey shore scene (thankfully not the state of a scene we see today on MTV) fronting various bands, jumping from one to the next. It was here that he forged early relationships with the stalwarts that would be the foundation of his band. It was also the time he earned himself the nickname ‘The Boss’ (much to his chagrin) as he assumed the responsibility of collecting and distributing the bands earnings from the night’s performance. As bands, musicians and songs came and went, the foundations of The E Street Band began to take shape. His constant touring coupled with his energy and vivacity in his live performances soon brought him to the attention of the right people, and after landing an audition with Columbia Records, Springsteen signed on the dotted line and began recording material for his first album released in 1973: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.
His first two albums, Greetings and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle are a powerhouse in storytelling. I’m not just talking about in the world of music: the narrative in some of these songs could rival the stylings of some of American literatures greatest storytellers. Songs like Lost in the Flood, Spirit in the Night, Incident on 57th Street and Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) are intricately structured accounts of love, grief and salvation; of troubled souls and hope for redemption. Incident on 57th Street is a complex narrative of one characters journey through the heart of the Jersey Shore and his dealings with the various characters that he comes across. You can almost smell the blood on the asphalt in Lost in the Flood as Springsteen’s gravelly vocals recall the fate of a man that has lost everything in the proverbial flood. The first two albums introduced names that are now a staple of the Springsteen lexicon: the Johnny’s, Jane’s, Sandy’s and Mary’s interacted across the songs to become instantly recognisable Springsteen characters.
The next album to come from Springsteen was the make-or-break record, the one that would seal the fate of his musical career and the E Street Band. Despite the critical success of his first two albums and extensive touring of the U.S, commercially the records didn’t excel. Teetering on the brink with his contract at Columbia, Springsteen was under pressure to produce an album to please fans, the accounting books at Columbia but most importantly, himself. After intensive and gruelling recording sessions (which make for a fascinating watch in the Wings For Wheels documentary), Born to Run was literally born and became the album that made Springsteen a serious contender in the world of rock. For me it’s his best album. Though it only has eight songs, they are eight of the most powerful, emotive and anthemic songs that will survive in the annals of rock history long after you and I have (E Street) shuffled off this big ball. The narrative of the album is intricately woven between each song, from the subtle piano and harmonica beginnings of Thunder Road to a rousing and emotional finale of gravelly vocals and crashing cymbals at the end of Jungleland. Springsteen’s thematic obsession with cars, the Jersey scene and the salvation of his grease-laden heroes are non-more evident than they are in these eight songs. As Springsteen has stated himself, Thunder Road is an open invitation to the listener to join him on this journey: a journey with companions that takes you through the best and the worst that life has to offer you in the hope that you’ll end up right where you want to be. Springsteen’s natural ability to tell a story rips through this entire album, each song perfectly placed as the narrator waxes on love, loss, friendship, rebellion and redemption. From the story of Scooter and The Big Man in Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out and the friendships forged in the summer in Backstreets to the gut-wrenching yearning of one man’s desperate attempt to believe She’s the One, the Born to Run album is a triumph in song writing and is only a prelude to the brilliance that was to follow.
The release of Born to Run cemented Springsteen’s position in the world of music and he has continued to build on this throughout the years. The albums that followed gave some of the best pop-rock ‘throwaway’ tracks (these would become a staple of Springsteen’s live performances), rousing rock anthems, politically-tinged songs and heartbreaking, honest tales of broken heroes. Springsteen just seems to be connected with the real issues that we face in everyday life and he beautifully constructs these fables around relatable characters with lyrics that are poetry and music that evokes an emotion to perfectly accompany your connection to the words. Songs like The River and its tale of love, unemployment and hardship; Born in the USA and its very un-patriotic stance towards the Vietnam War; Brilliant Disguise, a very raw reflection on a relationship and the self-doubt plaguing the narrator – these songs are just few of the many that highlight Springsteen’s ability to reach deep into your soul and put into words exactly how you’re feeling.
There’s one song to me that above all others proves Springsteen’s worth as a songwriter and as a man that understands what it’s like to have loved and lost; to have lived and lusted for a missed opportunity; to have come face to face with the reality of his dream. That song is The Promise. From the two-disc album of the same name released in 2010 as a collection of songs from the Darkness on the Edge of Town recording in 1978, The Promise is a haunting companion to Thunder Road. The Promise directly references Thunder Road by name but the melody and the deliverance of the lyrics in this song are in stark contrast to the anthemic attitude of promise and hope that Thunder Road offers. The Promise is the antithesis of Thunder Road: the yin to its yang; the dark to its light; the Cheech to its Chong. It tells a story of a man who has faced many missed opportunities, difficult times and had the dice rolled against his him. Even the luck he finds with money soon turns sour as he pays a big cost and feels the burden of those who lost before him. To me it is the story of a man recounting his honest, frank and realistic opinion on a life not lived but fought: it’s a black-cloud of a tale of empty promises unfulfilled, dispensing thoughts on life that are not hard to face. Some of the lyrics are the most difficult because they can be related to except this characters’ extreme is that it’s a whole life that’s been hard fought.
All my life I fought this fight, the fight that no man can ever win.
Every day it just gets harder to live, this dream I’m believing in.
Those lyrics hit me harder than any song had ever impacted me. They punched me square in the face and literally stopped my breath. Oftentimes we look to music to lift us or to help us through a difficult period in our lives, but sometimes we go for a song that is so raw it makes us face the very issue in an honest and harrowing way. Sometimes we shouldn’t sugar coat it, and this song is a prime example of that. Listen to the lyrics that look deep into your soul.
Choose any one of his studio albums and I guarantee you will find a song that you connect with, a song that sums up your point in life, your feelings towards a certain situation. He has an innate gift, a talent that thankfully has only continued to develop throughout his career and will hopefully continue for many more years to come. Based on his stamina, presence and the pure force of his live performances and his connection with his audience, we haven’t seen the last of this incredible performer.
Some songs can have a profound effect on us and no matter what time in our life this song echoes, it will stay with us forever and will act as a reminder – for better or for worse – of a time we felt something, of a time we’ll never forget. These songs aren’t easily placed and the lyrics may not directly associate themselves with the emotions of that moment, but nonetheless they become the mascot for this period of our lives. Springsteen’s songs cover the majority of my life in terms of thematic association: if I was to do a mix-tape of my life so far, Springsteen would feature heavily. I didn’t listen to some of these songs at that period in my life, but they became relevant the first time I listened to them, even years down the line. Whether you draw strength from these songs or they make you face an emotion prevalent to that period, nonetheless these songs become important and they remain in your life forever. So thanks Bruce, for helping me no matter what way the record spins: for or against, you’ve helped me face a lot.